Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Good Saturday

A lot seemed to go right for me yesterday. For instance, after two weeks of trying to put a new computer together, I found a local computer shop that had a part I needed and took my dysfunctional assortment of parts in and got their help. I now have a working PC again, and this old laptop I'm using can take a little break. My XBox 360 now plays DivX video files, so it can play all the video stuff I have been digitizing from my old tapes.

On the non-computer side of life, we gave another performance of our Christmas concert with the Symphonic Band of the Palm Beaches. The crowd were very enthusiastic and we got one and a half standing ovations. One and a half? In the first one, only the upper balcony stood up, so nobody downstairs got the hint and joined in :) I played my part in "Russian Christmas Music" better than last week and got compliments from the other trumpet players, and an invitation to practice some duets with one of our top guys! He lives pretty far away, though, so I don't know if we'll be able to meet up.

I didn't notice it until last night, but this program of music had a lot of very exposed playing - long sections where only one or two people are playing. It is said that it is more difficult to play slow music than fast music, but I think we did very well. My part wasn't difficult, particularly, but quite exposed and I could feel my pulse racing and my throat pressing up against my bowtie as I played those long piercing notes.

During the intermission I saw a gentleman in the percussion section looking through a set of collectible playing cards. This was an unusual sight, but I told him my favourite game, NetRunner, was designed by the same man who designed the cards he had. "NetRunner? Oh yeah, I love NetRunner too!" What a surprise! I thought I'd never meet anyone who'd heard of it, let alone played it, but we're going to start playing regularly next year.

Next Friday I begin my long trip back to Australia! I'll be there until the New Year so if any of my old friends want to meet up for lunch or dinner, I'd be delighted!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Going To Auctions

Auctions are a lot of fun and, if you're careful they can be a good way to make money too. I started going to my local auction house after stepping out of a nightclub one evening (yes, I went to a club!) and hearing the auctioneer's sales patter, which I'll try and reproduce here: "we've got a dishwasher, GE, guaranteed to work I'll give you 24 hours...and whatamIhear...shabadadadahundreded dollars...gimme a hundred a hunhunhunHundreddollars shabadabadbadafifty dollars hey gimmee fifty say fif-fif-fifty dollars who'll give me TWENTY FIVE DOLLARS FOR *THAT* DISHWASHER!! Anybody? Anybody somebody sommmmebody maybe anybody? Throw that one in too - twenty five dollars you're getting TWO dishwashers, guaranteed to work! You tell me folks, they're here to be sold. Tell me where else you'll find a deal like that!?.

A minute later he was offering three dishwashers for $10 and nobody took them. It was 11 o'clock at night, there were maybe 20 people there and this guy was trying to shift appliances to a tired audience. I looked around the room at the paintings, shelves of random household contents and thought "...this looks interesting."

I came back that Wednesday, and the next Sunday and learned how it works. You can hold up a couple of fingers and offer a price - you don't have to wait for him to come down that far. He doesn't have to take it, though, and might say "I'll come back to you." If you wait long enough he might make a big pile of stuff nobody else wants and sell the whole lot for one price. I did this and got a box of interesting objects for $3 that I split up and sold for $30 (and counting).

I also learned that it's easier to to sell common household items and "stuff" than to look for antiques. I've done really well on simple things like insulating window film (bought 25 boxes for $3, total and sold them for around $150), wine bottle totes ($400 for a HUGE amount of them, made $1200 and counting), LED baseball cap lights ($2 each, selling for $5).

Here's how the *ideal* scenario works, and it involves "haulers", travelling salesmen who come to 3-4 auctions a week with a truck loaded with overflow from warehouses, business closures and the Home Shopping Network! Write down items they're selling that you can easily store and ship, along with the price. When you get home, look them up on eBay and Amazon. If the price is higher, there's a chance the hauler will sell the same items next time he is at the auction - you can even put in requests ahead of time through your auctioneer (as I have found out.)

Sales can be seasonal - Christmas is an excellent time for little toys and gadgets like the cap lights. I bought 60 on Sunday and have sold 13 this week. They're small, strong and won't get damaged in shipping.

Be Patient
Remember that most items in the auction house won't sell right away - there's simply not enough time to get to them all, especially stuff on the back shelves. Write down interesting items, go home and research the current market prices on eBay and Amazon. If you think you can buy it cheaper than that, ask them to put it up at the next auction, take it home and try your luck. And if you get caught in a bidding war, just let it go. There's always more bargains to be had later.

Try and keep your house neat and the stuff you bring home organized, or it'll be a real drag. Ship items promptly and well-packaged - a good reputation on eBay and Amazon is a valuable thing.

And lastly, there's a great social atmosphere at auctions. You'll make new friends, trade tall tales about the one that got away, and see arguments, disputes and fights...I saw the cops get called once :)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

I Resurface

Goodness me, it's been a long time since I was here. I've been doing a lot of interesting stuff lately but I didn't know if I should write about it or not. But my public demands it, so here I am again.

Money! Moneymoneymoney. The getting of, and keeping of money seems to be what we center a large portion of our waking lives around. So why are so many people quick to spend it all?! The US has a quite low rate of personal savings; people here are simply bombarded with messages telling them to spend it all, that they "deserve" to own everything their heart desires, and stuff they didn't even know they wanted. This is a bad, bad thing and should be subverted whenever possible.

I've found a really good way to do this regarding furniture and other household items. Buy them at an auction. Our local auction house meets twice a week and you can get major appliances, dining room sets, piles of plates, sofas and chairs etc for pocket change. You just need to resist the urge to "buy new because only dirty, poor beggars buy second-hand". That message is what retailers want you to believe so they can make their ridiculous markups on new furniture. I'll write more about auctions later, but I'll one thing - you can make easy money buying little household items and reselling them on

The eventual aim of taking care of one's finances properly, is that you'll very seldom have to think about it. Once you're financially stable, it should take care of itself quite well with, perhaps, a monthly checkup. And if you're young, you have an irreplaceable asset on your side: time. The richest billionaire on the planet cannot buy more time in the market, and that's what you have at your fingertips. The sooner you start investing, the better off you'll be.

To finish off, here's an email I wrote to a friend that summarizes the simple advice it takes to get one's finances in order. This is mostly aimed at those who are carrying debt - the best investment you can make is to pay it off, especially if it carries a high interest rate - anything above 10%.

Assess the State of Play
So, let's see, I think the first order of business is to write down what you know about the state of play. How much comes in, how much goes out, what are your assets and your debts. What interest rates are you paying on those debts? List them from highest to lowest interest rate, grit your teeth and start making extra payments. There's not much point saving money in the bank if your car's debt is piling up at a high interest rate.

For your assets, remember to value them at how much they'd sell for today, not how much you paid for them. Hopefully you won't need to sell anything in order to get the books balanced, but it's always an option. A good example would be the car. You can use to get an idea of its current value...hopefully more than $8K :)

Choose A Plan of Attack
Once you know how the money is flowing, let's see how bad the situation is? Ideally you want to be able to save 15%-20% of the money that's coming into the house. Saving means money that is locked away as an investment and not spent unless it's a really dire emergency. So, is that achievable? Or are you breaking even? Or are you actually losing money and dipping into savings each month?

Your answer to that will affect how hard you attack the next step - if things are cruising along, you don't need to adjust much. If things are dire, it's time to sell the car, buy a junker, cancel the cable and get a night job delivering pizza. You're probably somewhere in between, though.

Look for easy adjustments. Can you easily lower any bills or bring more money in? Cancel some cable premium channels (or the whole thing!)? Cancel magazine subscriptions? Is there any "low hanging fruit" - easy changes you can easily fit into your life without trouble? I cancelled my cable and reduced my internet dsl speed to the minimum as part of my adjustments. I don't rent DVDs, I borrow from the library. I buy lots of food on sale (and from the auction!) and make sure to eat it before expiry. If you're throwing food out then you're buying too much. Do you bring lunch from home or buy it at work?

Tell your sons what the whole financial picture is like, and what they can do to help. Hopefully they're upstanding young men and will volunteer to make some sacrifices and help you out as much as they can.

Also look into other ways of bringing more money into the house - can you ask for a raise? If one is coming, can it be bigger? Ask your boss what'd you'd need to do to get a bigger raise or a promotion in, say, 3-6 months time. Have a yard sale - if your house is full of stuff, a yard sale is a quick way to clear out junk and make a few hundred bucks. If you have time in the evenings, look up DVDs,CDs, books etc on Amazon and other stuff on eBay to see what the going price is. It's time consuming, but the best way to get top $ for your items. I'm making about $200 a week selling out my old video games, CDs and books - this won't last though, all the good stuff is going quickly. (New note - this has gone up to $500 a week, gross income, and it's at least $300 profit.)

Final piece of advice - DON'T DIG THE HOLE ANY DEEPER! If you need to buy anything at all ask yourself (a) do I *really* need this? (b) can I get buy with a second hand one, or a cheaper model? (c) can I buy it at auction for $10 instead ( i.e bed, mattress, memory-foam mattress topper) ?! Don't embark on any risky schemes or high-risk investments and don't believe anything any "guru" says about real-estate, penny stocks etc.

My advice is, hopefully, generically useful, but the library will have lots of books on personal finance (and they're free!). Take an hour to go look through and pick one that makes sense to you - they all say much the same thing. "Spend less than you earn, and invest the rest!" is the core message and it works every time :)

My gut feeling, without knowing the figures, is that your top priority should be clearing your debt as fast as possible, especially anything with a high-interest rate. If you're not contributing to your 401k, it's probably a good time to put it at least the amount your company matches - that's 100% interest right there, tax-free!

Some websites
Instant Home Budget -
Some budget worksheets -

If you google for "personal finance budget" you'll get lots of good hits.

Dave Ramsey's website is not much help, but his show is excellent. Weeknights @ 8pm on *shiver* Fox Business Channel.

Lots of good advice here -

COPF : is a weekly collection of the best personal finance blog entries from around the web. Pick and choose the good bits. is a good read - the articles are about various things, but will get you in a good mindset for saving. There's lot of blogs about saving money; look around until you find one you like. The weekly carnival will lead you to lots of good ones.